John Stallworth’s Steelers Career: An Improbable Journey from Overlooked Draft Pick to Hall of Famer

NFL Hall of Famer John Stallworth defies the odds with luck, skill, and often times a combination of both. You can chalk his latest exploit to the latter.

The Steelers ownership restructuring became public in July of 2008, and the Rooneys promised that their new investors would include “one very recognizable name.”  That person was of course Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth who officially became a minority owner in 2009.

In doing so, John Stallworth took yet another step in his improbable journey. Click below to jump into one of the legs of that journey or scroll down to follow along for the full ride.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV. Photo via Newspress.com

From Alabama A&M to the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Draft

Stallworth played at Alabama A&M, one of the many historic black colleges (HBCs) that the Steelers scoured while many NFL teams, the demise of Jim Crow notwithstanding, still consciously overlooked.

According to Art Rooney, Jr.’s book Ruanaidh, the Steelers had rated him as one of the top collegiate receivers as early as 1973. When Chuck Noll first learned of Stallworth, he immediately pronounced him as first round pick and feared that Pittsburgh wouldn’t get a chance to pick Stallworth when the word got out on him.

  • By both happenstance and design, the word on John Stallworth never got out

In his self titled autobiography, the late Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney recounts how a team of BLESTO scouts had the ill fortune to time John Stallworth on a wet track. Ever wise, Steelers scout Bill Nunn feigned illness and stayed an extra day in Alabama, ran Stallworth on a dry track, and he got the time he wanted.

Nunn, who had extensive connections with the HBC community, coaxed Alabama A&M into sending films of Stallworth to the Steelers. This was long before the days of Mel Kipper and the cottage industry that today envelops the NFL draft.

A single tape on John Stallworth existed, and it was so impressive that Bill Nunn conveniently “forgot” to return it, giving Pittsburgh an effective a monopoly on information about Stallworth. (Art Rooney, Jr. insists that he instructed Bill Nunn and Dick Haley return the tapes, but he’s also clear that he wasn’t overly upset that they didn’t.)

Steelers 70's, Draft, war room, dick haley, Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr.

Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room

Nonetheless, Noll feared that the Senior Bowl would spill the secret on Stallworth, but the fates shined again on the Steelers, as Senior Bowl coaches kept moving him back and forth from receiver to defensive back.

The Steelers picked Swann first in the 1974 NFL Draft. The Steelers had no third round choice, so Noll wanted to pick Stallworth second. The scouts steered him towards Jack Lambert second, and then held their collective breath.

But Stallworth was there in the fourth round, and the Steelers picked him.

The Glory Years of the Super Steelers

Of the four Hall of Famers the Steelers picked in 1974, Stallworth was perhaps the most under appreciated.

  • Ray Mansfield almost immediately pronounced Mike Webster as his successor, and Noll immediately worked Number 52 into the line up
  • Lambert quickly made his impact felt both on and off the field
  • Having dazzled at USC, Lynn Swann was a known commodity

Lynn Swann actually had fewer catches than Stallworth as a rookie, but Swann had more touches, returning 41 punts for an amazing 14.1 yard average.

In 1975 both men became starters, and but the spotlight remained on Swann. During the regular season he caught 49 passes, more than doubling Stallworth’s total, and his acrobatic catches made during his MVP performance in Super Bowl X set a new standard for wide receiving excellence.

As is well documented, the Steelers defense of the 70’s was so dominant that it prompted the NFL to change the rules to favor the passing game. As Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest wrote, while everyone worried about how these changes would affect the Steelers defense, Noll plotted to unleash his offense.

Stallworth Second Fiddle to Swan?

In the minds of many fans, Swann was the star of the tandem, while Stallworth was the “possession receiver.”

  • But Swann and Stallworth were both stars

In 1978 Stallworth grabbed 20 fewer balls than Swann, but he averaged five more yards per catch. Together, the two men totaled 102 catches for nearly 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Stallworth caught 2 touchdowns to Swann’s one in Super Bowl XIII, including a 75 yard touchdown that Stallworth largely made happen after the catch. Unfortunately, leg cramps kept Stallworth out for most of the second half.

The following year, Stallworth lit it up. He led the team with 70 catches becoming the first Steeler ever to get break the 1000 yard receiving mark.

Super Bowl XIV – Hook and Go into History

John Stallworth’s performance in Super Bowl XIV was legendary.

The Steelers opened the second half trailing, but a downfield strike from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann gave Pittsburgh the lead. But the Rams immediately struck back, and Pittsburgh opened the fourth quarter down 19-17.

They’d also lost Lynn Swann for the game. His back up, Theo Bell was also hurt, leaving Jimmy Smith to step in, a man who would play 7 years and total 113 receptions.

Already stifling the Steelers running game, the Rams defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, summed it up best, “All we needed to do was double cover John Stallworth.”

Good luck.

  • Faced with third down on their own 27, Chuck Noll ordered Terry Bradshaw, “Go for the big one,” recounts Art Rooney Jr.

The name of the play was “60-Prevent-Slot-Hook-And-Go.”

The play hadn’t worked in practice. Bradshaw didn’t think he could do it. And Stallworth had doubts that it would work.

But it did.

Bradshaw rifled to Stallworth, who caught the ball at the Rams 32, never broke stride in route to a 73 yard touchdown. Stallworth put so much space between himself and the defender that the official signaled touchdown before number 82 even crossed the goal line. The NFL Super Bowl XIV highlight film does not confirm this (you can’t see any touchdown signal), but that is how I remember it.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers Super Bowl XIV win. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Bradshaw and Stallworth would work their magic one more time that evening. After Jack Lambert had stopped a Rams drive cold at the Steelers 33, two runs to Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton yielded 3 yards, the Steelers were faced with third and 7 at their 33.

Again Chuck Noll ordered Bradshaw to go deep. He called Hook and Go again, hitting Stallworth again for 45 yards, bringing the Steelers to the Rams 22 and setting up the touchdown that cemented the Steelers fourth Super Bowl Championship.

John Stallworth in the 1980s – Resurgence Cements His Greatness

The 1980’s tested Steelers Nation. Sure, Pittsburgh would make the playoffs 4 times, win one division title and even appear in a conference championship game. But with each season, the team lost more Super Steelers to retirement, and the men stepping in were not their equals.

  • Lynn Swann, victim of many concussions, retired after the 1982 season. Stallworth would be hurt for much of the 1983 season, limited to 8 catches for 100 yards.

But in 1984, Art Rooney Jr. and his once vaunted scouting department nabbed their final first round success, by picking Louis Lipps.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Opposing defenses couldn’t blanket Stallworth with Lipps playing opposite to him. With Lipps playing opposite of him, Stallworth made defenses pay.

  • In 1984 Stallworth caught 80 balls for 1,395 yards and 11 touchdowns; this record stood for 11 years, until Yancey Thigpen broke it in 1995
  • In 1985 he caught 75 passes for 927 yards
  • In 1986 he numbers dipped to 34 passes for 366 yards

But in the strike-shortened ’87 season, with Louis Lipps hurt and only Weegie Thompson to take pressure off of him, John Stallworth still caught 41 passes for 521 yards.

To really appreciate Stallworth’s excellence in the 80’s , consider that he was no longer catching passes from Terry Bradshaw, but rather David Woodley and Mark Malone.

The NFL took notice, as John Stallworth won the following accolades during the ‘80’s:

  • Pro Bowl, 1980, 1983, and 1985
  • Second team All Pro, 1984
  • Comeback player of the year, 1984

Stallworth a Success at “Life’s Work”

It would be unfair to label John Stallworth’s success in life after football as improbable. While the Steelers have had their share of players who’ve had difficulty with post-NFL life, far more of those Super Steelers have been just as successful at “life’s work.”

In 1986 John Stallworth founded Madison Research Corporation, which provided engineering and information technology services to both the public and private sector. He sold the company in 2006 and has since run Genius II.

During this time, despite his Hall of Fame resume, whenever NFL Hall of Fame selectors considered his name, John Stallworth confronted a tiresome chorus of “there are already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame….” Year after year, selectors snubbed Swann and Stallworth.

  • The situation grew so perilous that Myron Cope resigned from the selection committee, fearing his impassioned pleas were hurting Swann and Stallworth

Then, with lobbying from Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney, Swann got elected in 2001. Making his feelings clear to all about who should join him, Lynn Swann asked John Stallworth to be his presenter.

One year later the John Stallworth followed his teammate into enshrinement into Canton.

Stallworth’s Shot at Something Unique

Stallworth’s business endeavors have been quite lucrative, and that led the Dan and Art II to bring Stallworth into the group that bought out the rest of the Rooney brothers.

Now that he is officially an owner, Stallworth joins the handful of former players who’ve ascended to an NFL ownership suite.

In doing so, he has given himself a shot at doing something that no one else has ever done – John Stallworth can become the first man to win a Super Bowl as a player and as an owner.

  • It has been an uphill battle. Ten years have passed and Lombardi Number Seven still eludes the Steelers.

But Stallworth is unlikely to be daunted. He’s made a career of beating the odds.

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Steel Curtain Rising Celebrates 10 Years on the Web and Says “Thank You”

While we’re missing the actual date by a little, today Steel Curtain Rising celebrates 10 years on the web! And, in a curious case of life imitating “art”, events have brought this site full circle. How?

Well, on January 6th, 2008 Steel Curtain Rising’s first article read: “Self Inflicted Wounds Lead Steelers to Playoff Loss to Jaguars.” Ten years and nine days later we’d be forced to observe: “Steelers Self-Destruct as 2017 Season Implodes in Stunning 45-42 Loss to Jaguars at Heinz Field.”

  • Home playoff losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars are not the preferred way to bookend 10 years of Steelers blog, but it could actually be a good omen (see below).

They’ve been a lot of ups and a lot of downs along the way including, but not limited to Super Bowl XLII and, God willing, Ben Roethlisberger will play well enough and long enough to give the Steelers another shot at the Stairway to Seven.

Until then, let’s take stock of the last 10 years, share some highlights and, most importantly, offer some needed thank you’s.

Super Bowl XLIII, Super Bowl XLIII trophy, Super Bowl 43, Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes

Ben Roethlisberger & Tone celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with Dan and Art Rooney

Steel Curtain Rising – Genesis

While Steel Curtain Rising has only existed for 10 years, its roots dig deep into the 1990’s. At the dawn of the Bill Cowher era, I began PC screen saver marquees with “The Steel Curtain Will Rise Again.”

  • Then, during the dark days 1999, I began writing post-game email rants, as an act of catharsis.

Later, during 2000 season, I continued the practice, but decided to focus on the writing and the analysis. Some of those actually made it on to the web via Tim McMillen’sMcMillen and Wife” site, although I’m not sure they’re still there.

In 2001 I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where for the first time in a decade, I was reduced to watching Steelers Monday night and Sunday Night games, often times on tape delay. I continued the post-game emails, driving my wife crazy.

  • And  she was right: it was a too much work for too little return.

Yet, on a trip home after Super Bowl XL, two people independently complemented me with: “Hey, I really like your post-game write ups. Keep them coming….” A year and a half would pass before I kicked off this site, but I probably never would have had it not been for their complements.

  • So if you’ve enjoyed this site, then my cousin Jim V. and my friend Tom L. both deserve credit.

So in January 2008, on the evening of Mike Tomlin’s playoff debut, Steel Curtain Rising launched with the aim of either saying things about the Steelers that others weren’t or say so same things a little differently.

Ten Years of Steelers Blogging Highlights

Independent blogging is tough, and its tougher now than it was 10 years ago thanks to the rise of “content aggregation sites” and the corporatization of the blogging world. So be it.

But until August 2009, Steel Curtain Rising benefitted from the Tribune-Review’s old “SteelersLive Site” which included a link sharing feature that, for a good article, could net you over a 1000 page views in a single shot.

  • Thanks to that site, the profile on Greg Lloyd was this site’s most viewed article for a long, long time.

As Archie Bunker sang, “Those were the days.”

In time, on the old blogger platform, the retrospective on Steelers-Patriots history would ellipse that thanks to the magic of Google, as would the landing page for our series on the 1989 Steelers, one of the most enjoyable pieces this site has put together.

While blogger provided an easy way to get to the web, things change in the digital world. And as time passed Google showed a clear preference for independently hosted pages. So we moved to WordPress.

steelers vs cowboys, super bowl xiii, super bowl 13, terry bradshaw, mike webster

Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt

On WordPress the most popular page by far is the history of the Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys (thanks to the journalist who gave me a followable link, you have no idea of the favor you did.) After that comes the piece debunking “Your Team Cheats” from a Steelers perspective. Not too far below that comes our 2015 April Fools piece announcing the faux trade of Lawrence Timmons to the Dolphins.

As noted, independent blogging is challenging, and often times you need an outside push to get your stuff read. So it’s no surprise that the articles contrasting the Steelers and Redskins salary cap negotiation polices and taking Colin Cowherd to task, both of which benefited from Retweets from high profile journalists, did so well. Thanks to both of you.

ICYMI – Sleeper Steelers Stories

While this site’s high-performing articles are pieces to be proud of, they only represent a small cross section of the best work produced here.

Our aforementioned 1989 Steelers series cleaned up on the blogger site, but hasn’t fared so well on WordPress. The Myron Cope obituary, the site’s 12th article, was the first breaking news event I wrote about, and remains a source of site pride, as is Dwight White’s obituary.

  • Writing profiles on Steelers legends, both living and for those who have passed, has been a pleasure.

Yet, those pieces don’t always get the traction that you’d think the would, but site tributes to the likes of Kordell Stewart, Rod Woodson, John Stallworth, Jack Butler and Dermontti Dawson, and of course Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney are labors of love, and worth checking out.

If there’s any one surprise in terms of page views, it was a May 2010 piece on the 2000 Steelers road upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars. While it didn’t “go viral” it did well when published kept drawing visitors long after this sort of #TBT type story should.

Thanks You – Part I

Success results team effort and this site is no exception.

To that, thanks go out to my wife and, yes, my mom who help with editing and proofreading when time allows. The articles that have benefitted from their extra pair of eyes should be easy to spot.

  • Thanks also go out to Osvaldo in Patagonia, who migrated me from blogger, and Raghav in India who has provided SEO advice from time-to-time.

Words of appreciation are also due for Michael Bean and Neal Coolong, who gave me a chance to contribute to BTSC when it was a site on the rise, and who’ve done favors for this site large and small. Rebecca Rollett, Ivan, Homer, Clark, Bill and all of the contributors at Going Deep with the Steelers also get a well-earned “Thank You” nod here, for the same reason.

The first big Thank You goes out to Gustavo Vallegos, “El Dr. de Acero,” who started contributing articles in Spanish a few years ago and continues to do so on an occasional basis, as time allows. While dream of establishing a true, bi-lingual Steelers blog remains a way off, the truth is Gustavo’s analysis and writing is excellent, and this site is far strong for his contributions. Muchas Gracias, Gus!

  • We save the biggest shoutout for the man who’s done the most.

As a rule, big Steelers news has a knack of breaking when I’m away and/or unable to write. Tony Defeo stepped in and began helping by keeping the site updated in breaking news situations when I’m away. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

For close to two years now, Tony has been contributing to this site on a regular basis, raising the level of quality of this site across the board.

His profile on Calvin Sweeney a top-performer and must read. Likewise his piece on Larry Brown. And his work on Weegie Thompson stands as an example of blogging brilliance at its best. Thank You Tony!

Thanks to You the Readers

The biggest thank you goes you to you, the readers. For better and for worse, this site’s footprint in terms of comments and interaction has always been limited. That’s fine. But the Black and Gold faithful find this site, and if Google Analytics is any guide, visitors stay here after they arrive and they, or you, return.

It was also particularly gratifying, in the early days of 2008, before total life time visitors had even broken the 1,000 mark, to see “Steel Curtain Rising” hoping up in the referring keywords report.

  • Its been said that Google is the ultimate truth serum and that’s correct in a lot of ways.

The numbers of this site confirm it. While half of this site’s visitors come from Western Pennsylvania, the other half does not. And while the US, UK and Mexico send the lion’s share of visitors, this site has served visitors from nearly every country on the globe.

So thanks to whoever it was from Romania who kept visiting early on, thanks to whoever it was in Austria who visited this site day in and day out for several years. And thanks to the person in Nigeria who searched for Christian Okoye, found the page on the 1989 Steelers Chiefs game, and then went and viewed several dozen other pages.

In a word, thanks to each and every one of you for reading.

Jaguars Playoff Loss as a Good Omen?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are NOT in a good place right now. Instead of playing for the Super Bowl, they’re watching it at home as all sorts of negative stories permeate the press coming out of Pittsburgh.

But things didn’t seem too bright 10 years ago, after a promising season ended with the defense on the decline, and a controversial play call to the outside and a controversial special teams decision allowed the Jaguars to beat the Steelers at home twice in one season.

At that time, I made this observation, in the very first edition of the Watch Tower:

The Steelers are facing a very difficult off season. Even had we finished a little stronger, the team would have a lot of tough questions to answer about both free agents and aging veterans.
But there’s no need to make things out worse than they are, no need to exaggerate, no need to stray from the facts.

Things didn’t feel quite as bleak in January 2008, but the arrow on the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t seem to be pointing up. One year later the Steelers were Super Bowl Bound.

Yours truly is most certainly not predicting a Super Bowl next season. But then again, I wouldn’t have done so in January 2008 either….

Regardless, Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover and commentate on it all.

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Remembering Weegie Thompson – One Tough 1980’s Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiver

When I was a kid, my grandfather would rattle off obscure names of former Pittsburgh Steelers from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. These players obviously weren’t stars, but to him, they were favorites that he had a soft-spot in his heart for.

  • Perhaps today, there are 40-somethings who grew up in the 1980s, telling their kids about this former Steelers receiver named Weegie Thompson.
weegie thompson, steelers, wide receiver,

Weegie Thompson Steelers wide out 1984-89

Willis “Weegie” Thompson played his college football at Florida St., before arriving in Pittsburgh as a fourth round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft.  During a three-year college career, Thompson caught just 41 passes for 711 yards and five touchdowns.

  • But 31 of those catches, 502 of those yards and three of those touchdowns occurred during his final year, which probably helped his draft-status immensely.

It also didn’t hurt that Thompson stood at 6′ 6″ and weighed 212 pounds–measurables that would equal the playing field for most unheralded college receivers looking to make it at the pro level.

Thompson was part of the same class that produced Louis Lipps. After a rookie season that included 17 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns, playing behind both Lipps and the legendary John Stallworth, it may have looked like the future was bright for the young Thompson.

  • Unfortunately for Thompson, he never broke through to the top of the depth chart and never caught more than 17 passes in any given season.

Thompson went on to play just six seasons with the Steelers, before getting on with his life’s work following the 1989 Steelers story book season. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out in a story about Thompson in 2003, maybe if he had played 15 years later, he would have been utilized as more of a downfield weapon, instead of primarily as a blocker for the always conservative Chuck Noll.

weegie thompson, louis lipps, steelers wide receivers 1980's, 1988 Steelers

Steelers 1980’s wide receivers Louis Lipps and Weegie Thompson. Photo Credit: Getty Images, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

But as Thompson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette then, he had few regrets about his career:

I don’t dwell on it. I was proud to be a member of the Steelers and of the time I spent in Pittsburgh. I played hard and performed to the best of my abilities when I was there. I gave it my best and I’m pretty comfortable with that.

However, while Thompson had a rather obscure career that included just 79 receptions for 1,377 yards and 11 touchdowns, thanks to his abilities as a blocker, he was able to gain lasting respect from one of the all-time greats, Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.

Thompson’s play during the Steelers’ famous upset victory over San Francisco in Week 7 of the 1984 season (the only loss by the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers that year and perhaps Noll’s most impressive post-’70s regular season victory) is mentioned in a SFGate article about Lott from 2000.

What follows is a snippet of the article, along with a quote from Lott:

Call it respect–for yourself, for others. It had meaning to Lott. You earned his respect by playing hard and tough, and within the rules. He still fairly gushes when he talks about a journeyman Pittsburgh wide receiver named Weegie Thompson. In Thompson’s rookie season, 1984, the Steelers were the only team to beat the 49ers. One reason they did was by assigning Thompson to block Lott on every play. 

“He blocked my butt all day–and fair,” Lott remembered. “Every play, he came after me. And I respect the hell out of Weegie Thompson to this day. He’s one of the toughest guys I ever played against.”

Some NFL players go on to have Hall of Fame careers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth), some are borderline (Hines Ward). Others have good careers that may have been better in different eras or under different circumstances (Buddy Dial, Roy Jefferson and Louis Lipps), while some never reach their full potential (Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and maybe Martavis Bryant).

But there are countless NFL players who play for a while and end their careers with no legacy.

  • Football doesn’t define them; it’s something they did for a part of their lives.

Weegie Thompson was that kind of football player, but he still left enough of an impression on fans and even peers playing for rivals to be proud of his time with the Steelers and the NFL.

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